Reassessing the cultural significance of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s cult comedy classic and its soundtrack
It’s easy to see why writer ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and director Jay Levey’s 1989 comedy opus UHF would initially fail upon release, only to become a treasured cult classic with later generations.
The film itself seems to deliberately court this eventual fate, its wacky aesthetic presaging the irony-heavy stoner comedy of the 90s and, later, the deeply strange wave of anti-humor that rose to popularity in the early 21st century. As the garish neon materialism of the 80s gave way to an apathetic and weary 90s, UHF was a comedy without a clear era, a fact doubling the misfortune of a release in the same blockbuster-packed summer of crowd-pleasing fare like Batman, Ghostbusters 2 and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.
The film’s official soundtrack is every bit as scattershot, strange, and weirdly affecting as its film. Foregoing any hint of UHF’s actual cinematic score, the collection is titled: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack With Other Stuff, and that casual, offhanded manner carries over into the music itself. Opening with a deeply bizarre mashup of Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’ with the theme lyrics of the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies (featuring, against all odds, actual Dire Straits guitar whiz Mark Knopfler), it’s easy to see this collection’s later appeal for the bong-hitting dorm-room crowd. Plenty of Weird Al’s usual parodic flights of whimsy are evident, some of them very much pinned to their era (“She Drives Like Crazy” being a fairly typical Weird Al homage to the Fine Young Cannibals’ hit “She Drives Me Crazy”). But for every frenetic polka medley sendup and Spam-centered joke on chart titans like R.E.M., there’s oddball epics like “The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota”, which neatly skewers Gordon Lightfoot-style folk epics, and “Attack Of The Radioactive Hamsters From A Planet Near Mars”, underlining Al’s career-long fascination with the popular pet rodent. That this hyperactive, Adderal-earning ’soundtrack’ to an overlooked film was regarded as a lesser Weird Al effort at the time makes sense, but it also speaks highly of its current status as an overlooked grab bag of interesting misfires and buried gold, a collection of oddball experiments which many of Al’s other, higher-profile albums would never have cleared space for, a kind of alternate route of surrealist weirdness he might have taken in the years between UHF’s failure and his return to the charts with Off The Deep End. Never again had Al ventured quite so far off of his usual, albeit charming, tether.
The soundtrack also provided a serious hurdle that could not be breached; the once-fruitful working relationship between Al and his producer, former McCoys’ guitarist Rick Derringer, had disintegrated into silent treatments and frustration, and Derringer would never again produce for Yankovic. After the surrealist skits and hammy blues sendups and strange genre goofs like a blaxploitation take on Ghandi (“Ghandi II”), Derringer threw in the towel. This could’ve spelled disaster for Yankovic–an artist with a billion constant ideas firing like neurons often needs a necessary pragmatic foil. It’s to Al’s credit that he managed to resuscitate his very specific-niche career following the loss and has thrived since. Call it Al’s winning Midwestern charm that he’s been able to meet audiences halfway.
Looking back at this profoundly unorthodox Weird Al release, and his later reinvention for the grunge era, it’s also hard not to draw parallels between Al’s creative struggles and the ebbing of the Day-Glo 80s into the irony-soaked 90s. Following UHF, Al would never again tinker so noticeably with his style, and as Liam Lynch, cartoons for adults, and YouTube’s parodic amateur echo chamber flourished, Al has settled into comfortable elder statesmen mode, cruising on dependable success and renown, surely tickled pink that such failures as UHF would find a life of their own in these dire times.
The concept of the film UHF, in which a lovable and scatterbrained daydreamer is given the keys to a schizophrenic paradise of his very dreams, squares nicely with the persona of Weird Al (and similar idealists like Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Ruebens), an immensely talented parodist who sees in our fleeting pop culture fads and whimseys an opportunity to deconstruct and reconfigure, so that we might do more than merely chuckle in recognition but rather take in these digested crumbs of the zeitgeist anew. In the truest sense, Weird Al, despite his many masks and guises, has always represented us, the consumer, overwhelmed by media and gadgetry and trends but in love with the cultural ephemera all the same. We need the Weird Als, the modern sages, to hold up their colorful mirror to s the often wearisome din of society, telling us something crucial about ourselves and our capacity for diversion. The UHF Soundtrack may not be the ultimate example of why the man’s music affects us so deeply, but it might be the most effective peek he’s yet allowed us inside his brain.
AUDIO: UHF full soundtrack